Why You Should Consider Attending an HBCU
Published on February 3, 2021
Last year's sharp rise in social activism, combined with the recent inauguration of Howard University alum Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States, has served to highlight the central role and influence of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in American culture.
These institutions boast a long legacy of helping Black Americans gain access to higher education during a time when most colleges and universities restricted enrollment to white (and usually male) students. HBCUs also often served as hubs for social activism and efforts toward racial equity.
But HBCUs aren't just notable for their history of producing barrier-breaking alumni; they also provide a unique, unmatched learning experience that can help students of all backgrounds achieve their goals.
In honor of Black History Month, we interviewed Dr. Mila Turner, an HBCU alum and professor, to learn more about the history, power, and prestige of these institutions.
Interview With an HBCU Professor and Alum
Could you tell us a little about the history of HBCUs and your institution?
Most HBCUs were founded in the decades after the Civil War to provide opportunities for racial uplift through education. Many were initiated to provide agricultural and industrial training, and eventually expanded to offer liberal arts education as well.
All of this education and training were intended to improve the economic conditions of Black Americans after slavery, as well as serving social and political purposes that ultimately helped maintain historical and cultural traditions. As a result, HBCUs have been integral in providing leadership and role models for the African American community, the nation as a whole, and the globe.
Howard University — my alma mater — was founded in 1867 to educate the newly emancipated population and was named for Oliver Otis Howard, a white Civil War general who later became one of the university's presidents. The school, whose student body has long advocated for social change, boasts a rich legacy of developing cultural icons and political leaders, and is also a research leader in fields like STEM and medicine.
All of this education and training were intended to improve the economic conditions of Black Americans after slavery, as well as serving social and political purposes that ultimately helped maintain historical and cultural traditions.
There are far too many notable alumni to list, but individuals who have been spotlighted this year, like Vice President Harris and actor Chadwick Boseman, are only a couple in a long list of political and cultural leaders who attended Howard: Zora Neale Hurston, Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ossie Davis, Phylicia Rashad, Stokely Carmichael, Sean "Diddy" Combs, and many, many more.
My current institution, Florida A&M University, was founded in 1887, and is right now the No. 1 public HBCU in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. The school is home to many notable alumni, including Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, film producer Will Packer, tennis legend Althea Gibson, historian and writer Ibram X. Kendi, and actors Common and Anika Noni Rose.
However, more than any one individual, FAMU is arguably more famous and well known for the Marching 100, a marching band that now has a few hundred members.
What impact have HBCUs had on higher education? On society more broadly?
HBCUs were once the only option African Americans had for economic and social advancement, since we were not permitted to attend historically white colleges or universities.
These institutions have contributed a host of leaders and thinkers to society, including some of the most prominent figures we know, like Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), and W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk University).
Students at HBCUs across the nation have led the charge in major social movements such as the civil rights movement and even efforts for racial justice more recently. They took extreme risks and occasionally made the ultimate sacrifice — their lives — because they were committed to achieving civil rights for all.
What do you consider uniquely valuable about an HBCU education?
HBCUs offer necessary cultural education and development in and out of the classroom. We are community-oriented and foster relationships among students as well as between students, faculty, alumni, and the surrounding community. These friendships and mentoring relationships are not unique to HBCUs but are especially strong here.
HBCU attendance comes with unofficial membership in a global, supportive group of alumni who often go out of their way to support and assist one another — in any situation. Wear your HBCU T-shirt to any airport to see what I mean.
What advice would you give to students considering an HBCU?
Go for it! You have the rest of your life to be a "minority." HBCUs allow African American youth to grow and develop in a protected space, which provides lifelong personal and health benefits. Many students arrive to have their first (and best) opportunity to learn about African diasporic history and culture, which develops pride and deepens bonds.
HBCUs are extremely valuable, yet it's no secret that they're often under-resourced. Choose one that will best position you for your future success. Colleges and universities have strengths in different disciplines or strong existing partnerships that serve as direct funnels to certain careers or employers.
HBCUs are extremely valuable, yet it’s no secret that they’re often under-resourced. Choose one that will best position you for your future success.
For example, Howard is based in Washington, D.C., where students benefit from being in the nation's capital because the presence of federal agencies makes it easier to find mentors and internships. There are also resources like the Library of Congress, Smithsonian museums, and headquarters for national research and professional associations. Similarly, FAMU is located in Tallahassee — the capital of Florida — so students can benefit from this location as a political hub.
Make sure to consider geographic characteristics as well. For instance, many HBCUs near coasts boast strong environmental programs.
Feature Image: Nikita R / Shutterstock